Engadiner.

•March 16, 2015 • Leave a Comment

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Last weekend I raced in the Engadin Ski Marathon from Maloja to S-Chanf, in the Engadin valley of Switzerland. I wrote up a little blog post about it for the Ford Sayre Junior Nordic Team blog – I raced in their suit, as I did for the first time in, gosh, 2002? 2003? Anyway, go read my blog post here! It was a fun race and I had a fun time writing it up.

Besides the race itself and the glorious just-for-fun training ski I had the day before going up the Roseg valley (that’s the photo at the top), one of the really fun things about the weekend was all the people I got to meet and hang out with.

I drove down to St. Moritz on Friday night with the Zurich International School ski team, who I’ve been helping coach a little bit on the weekends all winter. They are a super great group of kids and I always enjoy hanging out with them. I also really miss coaching, so it’s nice to get my fix. On this occasion, I drove with Greg Velicer, whose daughter is on the team. He is a great evolutionary biologist (Greg’s own work is amazing, but I will just also mention that he studied with Richard Lenski…), so we spent the drive talking about science, academic life, expat life and… skiing. A lot about skiing. It was really nice to talk with someone about some of the work-life balance challenges I face in trying to maintain an athletic lifestyle, and have them really agree that there’s value in making it work. You can read about Greg’s cool science on his lab website, which describes their research on ecology and evolution of myxobacterial social behavior.

After checking out the St. Moritz night sprint with the high school team (just spectating, after we did an easy ski from Silvaplana into town), I connected with Holly Brooks and we headed over to Caitlin and Brian Gregg’s apartment for dinner. They had cooked up a feast and it was a blast to connect with all of Team Gregg, including Brian’s mom and brother, and Elias Bucher, who was working as their wax tech and later gave me and Holly a ride back to Zurich. I had missed Caitlin’s amazing bronze-medal winning race at World Championships by just one day, so she showed me her medal, too!

I spent a lot of time with Holly, who has been stopping by my house in Zürich in between stints racing the different FIS Marathon Cup races. She has a great blog about her experiences – she has won quite a few of the races and is the current leader of the Cup, but also is trying to figure out the logistics for some of these trips where Americans rarely, if ever, travel to the races. Her blog is a great mix of athletic stories, cultural experiences, and travel advice. She’s also working towards a masters degree in counseling psychology, and it’s absolutely amazing what she is juggling and excelling at simultaneously. Check out the blog here, or for a different perspective on the Engadin, you can read her post here (Holly finished fifth). Holly also saved my bacon in terms of getting me a ride to the start along with the Salomon team who was supporting her, and sharing her wax box with me so I could wax up my skis to be super fast. Mostly, though, it’s just always fun to hang out with this lady!

Holly was staying in an apartment in Samedan, about the midpoint of the race, which had been rented by her friend Tony (pictured with me and Holly at the sunny finish in the photo above!). I was very lucky that there was room for me to stay there too. Joining us was also Sarah Willis, an American who was in Sweden at the same time as me and is now doing a PhD in exercise physiology in Lausanne. Despite all the things we have in common we had never met, so it was really fun to hang out with Sarah. She’s also a super badass mountain running ultramarathon machine.

And finally, after the race we met up with a bigger U.S. crew and sat at a picnic table in the Engadin sun drinking beer. We were joined by Fast Big Dog and his friends, Tony, Team Gregg, and Inge Scheve and Kent Murdoch; I improbably ran into my friend Greg as he was walking by; and some other U.S. elite skiers who had competed dropped by and said hi.

It was a really nice weekend of reconnecting with part of my community, and although I was completely exhausted by the time I got back to Zürich (the drive was horrendous, the worst traffic ever in Switzerland), I was filled with a happy glow all week. Hooray for ski racing, skiing, and skiers!

on to Falun.

•February 26, 2015 • Leave a Comment

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There are several blog posts which I have planned but not yet executed (God I couldn’t sound more like a scientist/robot if I tried), but instead I traveled…. last night I made it to Falun, Sweden, site of 2015 FIS Nordic Ski World Championships! Today cross country skiers, nordic combined athletes, and ski jumpers all had medal events. It’s crazy and fun and I’m super excited. I am working for FasterSkier.com, but with three of us here it’s nowhere near as stressful or crazy as when I go to a World Cup weekend singlehanded, and nowhere near as crazy as last year at the Olympics. We have three people and three articles per day while I’m here, not one person and three articles or three people and six or ten articles. Phew!

So not only is it work, but it is also vacation: we can sleep as long as we want in the mornings, and spend time talking and hanging out. It’s great to see my coworkers Alex and Lander again and I’m hoping to have time to see lots of other friends too. I have a breakfast date with Ida tomorrow morning and am very excited to catch up with buddies from the U.S.. Watching some very exciting ski racing is always fun, too.

And finally, it just feels great to be back in Sweden. As soon as I landed at Arlanda airport, I exhaled a sigh of relief: ahhhhh. It feels like home (maybe literally, since I spent quite a few nights sleeping in that dang airport). I hadn’t thought that Zürich didn’t feel like home, but Sweden is the place where I’ve spent the most time in the last 2 1/2 years, and it just feels comfortable to be back. Everything feels familiar and nice.

Here’s a link to my first article onsite, if you’re new to the blog and want to see what I do in my “other”, non-scientist life.

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sledding as an extreme sport.

•February 17, 2015 • Leave a Comment

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I always kind of wondered where bobsled came from. I mean, you could say that of plenty of sports which I like – who had the idea of biathlon? I understand horse racing, but why stadium jumping? Like all of these sports, there is an answer to where bobsled and luge originated. With their carbon-fiber sleds, spandex suits, and bobblehead helmets, it had never occurred to me that after all, it’s just sledding. But it is. It’s just sledding.

Don’t believe me? Watch this amazing video of the first Olympic bobsleigh competition, held in 1924 in Chamonix, France.

Switzerland won, natch.

And I’m in Switzerland. All across the alps they take sledding, or sledging, a little more seriously – something which U.S. skiers are always delighted to discover when they have an off day from a competition trip or training camp. Rubber inflatable tubes? Flying saucers? No. This is sledding in a different form.

The trails are groomed (at times I wished I had my cross country skis… the climb would have gone a lot faster!). And go on for kilometers and kilometers, in some cases.

This weekend my friend Daniel came to visit us, and we took the opportunity to go to Thun to see our buddy Reto. From there (after his mother fed us a lot of amazing food) we drove to Grindelwald. Reto has his learner’s permit for driving and there were a few scary moments, but actually he’s a pretty good driver.

Grindelwald is home to what is assumed to be the longest toboggan run in the world. First you take a gondola up through the First ski resort (yes, it’s called First, not a typo), then you walk about two hours pulling your sled behind you. When you reach 2,680 meters, you turn and go down.

And down. All the way to Grindelwald. It is 15 kilometers and 1600 meters of elevation drop, although the weather is so warm right now that we had to walk the last bit because the snow had turned into slush or just melted completely.

Up high though, it’s amazing. It’s so white. It’s so wide open. It’s the last place I would imagine to take a sled… but I’m sure glad we did!

I didn’t take any photos once we started the descent, but here are a few from the climb up. The saddle of this ridge is more or less where we started the sled ride. Wow!

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open access for who?

•February 7, 2015 • 7 Comments

IMG_1090Beautiful Uppsala.

A lot has been written about the push for open access publishing in academia. In case you’re not familiar with it, it means publishing in journals where content is available, free of charge, online, to everyone. This is very different than the traditional journal model, where libraries pay exorbitant fees to publishers for access to the journals, and if you aren’t working through one of those libraries you will hit a paywall where access to a single article is likely to cost $30-45 if not more.

In a lot of ways I feel like I can’t add much: it’s a great idea, it helps science be more accessible, it often helps data be more accessible, it opens the conversation. It’s another high cost, borne to authors instead of to libraries. It’s confusing how the journals make all the money no matter what way we publish.

I fully support the idea of open access, and most of my papers so far have been published in open-access journals. That includes one, about climate change effects on a seemingly unassuming (but actually ecologically and reproductively fascinating) arctic/alpine cushion plant, Silene acaulis. That paper went on to be one of the most highly-accessed articles on the Springer’s catch-all open access journal, SpringerPlus. To date it has over 4,000 accesses, according to the article metrics. Would this have been more if it were published in a different journal? I have no idea, but it is much more popular than I had expected.

Based partly on this positive experience, my masters supervisor (Juha Alatalo) and I decided to publish in primarily open-access journals. (I did not make the same decision about my other work, and have a different manuscript based on my research in Davos submitted at a traditional journal.) Which brings me to the unique question I have: how do I pay for it?

In traditional journals, there might not be a fee to get a manuscript published. There might be, but more likely (at least in the better journals) there is a fee for color figure printing, or perhaps a per-page fee. In open access, that goes out the window. Because journals can’t charge libraries fees to access these manuscripts, instead they charge the authors. Fees usually run greater than $1000, sometimes up to $3000.

Some departments and lab groups work this into their budgets. Some researchers also include a category on their grant applications to cover publication fees. However, some funding agencies also explicitly do not pay for publication fees. If you are a researcher in between grants, money might be tight. Or, like me, you might be a graduate student working to publish your first first-authored paper. It would take more than a month’s worth of my masters scholarship payment just to pay the open access fees. And, like me, you might work in a small lab group that does not have additional funding to easily cover these sorts of things.

I looked around and found that many universities (not all, but a chunk of the R1 schools in the U.S.) have special funds to cover open-access publishing. Just via google, here are a few examples: Harvard; University of Calgary; Cornell; University of Arizona.

The University of Heidelberg in Germany has a funny way of describing the rationale for their fund: “Heidelberg University supports researchers who are willing to publish articles in open access journals with a publishing fund to cover article processing charges.” Are willing. As if it’s some burden.

PLoS One even has a list of universities which have funds to cover PLoS (a journal consortium which stands for Public Library of Science) publishing. That’s really nice on first read, but then you think about it more and it seems less “open”: the publishing house itself is referring people to ways to convince third parties to pay the publishing house.

It also, and I am being petty and jealous here, makes it much easier for some researchers to publish in open access journals than others. The university where I did my masters, Uppsala University in Sweden, does not have such a fund. During the time when I wrote the paper I am seeking to publish, I was supported only by a small scholarship from my masters program. I received no funding from my supervisor or his lab. It’s not like I have leftover grant money with which I can pay publication fees.

Being in Sweden, home of Pirate Bay and the Pirate Party, Uppsala of course loves the idea of making science publicly available. Sweden has a program, OpenAccess.se, which promotes open access. Trolling through the Uppsala library archives, I am unable to find any evidence of funding to cover open access fees, but I did find a powerpoint presentation which stated, awkwardly, that there was at the moment no available funding to cover these expenses even though they really would like researchers to publish open-access.

Instead, Uppsala has a database called DiVA, which they call an open-access repository. This type of “repository” is listed as one of the main goals of OpenAccess.se. Up until recently, students were required to submit their theses to DiVA, so that they could be read by all; departments then realized that actually, if a student tried to then publish some part of that thesis, the journals might balk since it had already actually been published. When I finished my masters, we were first told to submit our theses, and then told not to because the university had to sort out some legal issues.

There are also published articles in DiVA, and researchers are encouraged to upload their work which is published in journals. There are a few problems with this: copyright on journal articles is complex, and you aren’t necessarily allowed to “make” an article open access by posting it online. The journal owns the copyright, even if you own the data. As such, there are not so many full-text articles in DiVA. If I do a keyword search for the major ecological concept I am studying in my PhD, dendritic networks, nothing comes up. If I search for “dendritic”, I get some clinical medicine articles.

And DiVA is Uppsala’s crowning library achievement, in some sense. It is heavily promoted within the university, and touted as their contribution to open access.

(It also has other functions. “All publications by researchers and staff at Uppsala University should be registered in DiVA,” the FAQ reads. “The reason for this is to produce a complete picture of what is being published by staff at the university. In addition departments can use this information to facilitate the evaluation and distribution of funds.” There are many records of publications which do not have the actual full-text articles attached to them.)

It’s pretty clear that while DiVA might be useful for many applications, it is not the same thing as an open-access journal. And if you want your work to be accessed by all, Uppsala – consistently ranked in the top 100 universities in the world, and the second-best in Sweden – is not going to help you.

Here’s another example of how I’m stuck: the Ecological Society of America, which publishes multiple highly-regarded journals, waives page fees (for the first 15 pages per year, at least) for members who lack grant money, for its flagship publications Ecology, Ecological Applications, and Ecological Monographs. For their open-access journal Ecosphere, members get a reduced price for publication: $1250 instead of $1500. There are no grant funds available to further cover costs for researchers who lack grant money.

And so, I’d like to ask: open access publishing is frequently discussed in very idealistic terms, with lofty goals for the future. But is it so egalitarian? If you lack funding, for instance if you are early in your career – not coincidentally the point where open access to your work might be extremely beneficial – there seems to be a clear message: open access is not for you. Finding a broader audience for your publication might be unattainable, as is your hope of sharing knowledge with all.

answers.

•February 1, 2015 • Leave a Comment

A few weeks ago the blog Dynamic Ecology, which I and my labmates thoroughly enjoy, ran a post answering the search engine questions which most frequently redirected readers to the blog. It was hilarious. It also made me wonder: what questions send people to my blog?

The result is a fun meandering through the history of the blog. Enjoy.

pointyhow difficult is the last climb on mt thielsen? Well. Mount Thielsen, in central Oregon , is called one of the “pointiest” peaks in the world. It’s also called the lightning rod of the Cascades. It’s pretty pointy. You could boulder your way up it, or use ropes, it’s up to you. I didn’t go to the top because the entire pitch was blocked by slow-moving tourists who had no idea what they were doing, and it seemed pretty dangerous to be anywhere near them. How hard is it to get up to the base of that pitch though (called “Chicken Ledge”)? My friend’s dog did it. It’s not impossible, unless you’re a worse hiker than the dog.

is baked alaska hard to make? Depends. Do you want it to come out well? Mine looked good but tasted not so good. Baked Alaska failures have even been televised and the matter of national controversies. Personally, at this point I don’t see what the big deal is with this dessert.

what to do with too much bread? Hmmm, well, make croutons, make a bread salad, make a bread soup, eat a lot of grilled cheese, make a delicious bread pudding. There are lots of options. Make a bread bowl for your soup. Make bread crumbs. Feed some ducks.

skiswhen to use klister? When the snow is wet and kickwax isn’t going to work. Or buy fishscales or some of those magical Atomic Skintechs that I’ve been hearing so much about. If you’re not sure what klister is for, you’re probably going to regret opening a tube. Buy the fishscales.

how to torch klister? Okay, now we’re talking. I like it, the questions are getting more specific. That indicates that you might have figured a few things out. So, buy a torch (kerosene is good), hold the tube of klister in one hand, and torch the tube carefully to soften up the contents. Be careful not to light yourself on fire. Then, squeeze some, but not too much, of the now-runny goo onto your kick zone. DO NOT PUT IT ON YOUR WHOLE SKI! I heard a story about someone who actually did that once. Ouch. Turn the torch back on and heat the klister some more. It might seem like you’re going to light your ski on fire, but you probably won’t. I’ve only seen Dennis Donahue do that once. Finally, use your thumb to “smooth” the klister out. This should be easy since it’s hot. Voila! Klister skis!

what is climate science? Oh, just another really important thing that Americans distrust and/or hate. I’ll be over here crying.

how to make fried noodles with spaghetti? Make some spaghetti. Put it in a frying pan with some oil and whatever else you want to fry it with. Fry it. Just because it tastes good doesn’t mean it’s rocket science.

whiskeyhow to be a viking? Sadly, we are all a few centuries too late for this. However, it’s always entertaining to try. First, get used to bad weather. Drink various and different kinds of alcohol. Learning to swing a sword or shoot a bow and arrow or something wouldn’t be a bad idea. Get to know the land around where you live. Ride a horse? Row a boat. Eat a whale. Drink more.

make kräftskiva fun? If you think that kräftskiva is not fun, then you have no business even trying to be a viking. Obviously, eating an immense amount of crayfish while drinking and wearing silly hats is a huge amount of fun.

what is physiological testing? IMGP0318Torture (pictured at right).

what should a doctor’s note say? Hmm. I guess it depends what kind of doctor’s note you want. Like, to get out of work? To play hooky? To prove to the French you should be allowed to live there? To avoid military service? I’m not sure I can answer all of these questions.

how to cutting and assembling cakes? Please do so more skillfully than I do. Don’t turn into a CakeWreck. I can, however, point you to the expert, Joe Pastry, to tell you how to assemble a cake.

why did my rhubarb pie turn black? I think we call that burning. Try checking the oven next time.

why we succumb to peer pressure? I don’t know? Because we like our friends? And if we didn’t then we’d probably just sit on the couch and get fat? Wait, that belies something about my life…. peer pressure usually leads me to do extreme or ill-advised athletic endeavors. Were you talking about beer?

schnee!

•January 23, 2015 • 2 Comments

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One of the promises I made to myself recently was to spend more time outside, more time on skis, more time exercising because it makes me feel good. I had sort of forgotten that for a while, or rationalized that I was “so busy” with starting my PhD that it was okay if I didn’t exercise for days on end…. then I wondered why I felt shitty.

On Saturday I gamely headed to the train station an hour before sunrise and hopped on a train for Graubunden. It was raining in Zurich. I got to Chur and switched to a bus. As we climbed up to Churwalden the rain turned to snow; I eventually got off in Valbella and headed into the Lenzerheide touring center. I’ve learned that in Switzerland, trails might not open until 9 a.m. on Saturdays. I guess the Swiss, with all their leisure and their money and their time, don’t start skiing at the crack of dawn like so many of the endurance junkies I know in the States. The kiosk was not open when I arrived at 8:30 so I didn’t buy a ticket: I just hit the trails.

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It had been snowing all night and was still snowing, so they weren’t exactly groomed. But it was really exciting to be back on skis for the first time since Christmas, and I had a great time tooling around for 2+ hours. It was slow going – I covered far fewer kilometers than the time would imply – but also totally beautiful. Unfortunately the connector trail from Valbella to the World Cup Cross Country trails and biathlon arena was closed, which was a bummer because I wanted to check out their biathlon stadium and see the course where Simi Hamilton won his first World Cup last season. Oh well, I’ll have to make another trip back.

As I was on the train home – hurrying to get back so I could meet my friend Lore at the train station as she arrived from Paris – I got a text from my friend Brook. He was taking a van full of high school skiers to Davos the next day. Did I want to come?

I thought for five minutes. I had planned to do work all day Sunday, and there was definitely a lot of work that needed to be done. But… a free ride to Davos… to ski… with a new friend…. yes, I was definitely going.

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Day two had all of the lovely snow, but it was no longer actually snowing and instead it was beautiful and sunny. I was tired from my snowstorm slog the day before, but I had a blast with the Zurich International School crew and it was the best snow conditions I’ve seen yet in Davos (I always seem to go there when there’s no snow).

By the end of our three hours skiing, I was completely exhausted. But when I collapsed into bed that night I did, indeed, feel very happy and satisfied. No matter what (and no matter if I’m out of shape and tired), skiing feels easy to me. My legs move in the right way, my core crunches. If I was running and I was the same amount tired, it would feel worse. Skiing I can rely on; skiing I can do. It’s nice to feel competent at something, especially as I start a new PhD where I often feel like I’m in completely over my head.

Cheers to more skiing!

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coping.

•January 11, 2015 • Leave a Comment

When I got back to Switzerland after Christmas, I arrived in a snow storm. It snowed for four days straight in Zurich, finally blanketing central Europe in the white stuff we so desperately needed.

Then it rained. All the snow melted overnight.

Finally, it got beautiful.

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I went hiking, from the Zugerberg to Wildspitz and then down to Sattel. I was in canton Zug, just to the southwest of Zurich proper. A 30 minute train ride took me to the city of Zug, where I started walking up. Once atop the Zugerberg, I had a long stretch of highlands to meander my way along before climbing – and here it got snowy – up to Gnipen and then Wildspitz, the highest point in the canton at about 5,100 feet.

It’s not a mountain, exactly. But it gives you great views of the other ones.

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I needed the time outside, the nearly six hours in nature, the scrambling focus of ascending a summit (Gnipen) with the last pitch so steep that it had bolted-in rope to hold onto – made more treacherous through slushy snow. Last week I got some very bad news. I learned that my friend J had died in a rock climbing accident in Mexico.

It was an immediate gut-punch. It’s so incomprehensible that something like this would happen to someone so wonderful, so generous, so young, so excited about life. Someone who was a careful outdoorsman. J was not one of my ten closest friends, or my 20 or even 30 closest friends. We had great times together, but he wasn’t excellent at staying in touch over e-mail. But he was such an amazing person that it hit me really hard – I can only imagine how much harder it is for the people who are his ten closest friends. For his parents. For his girlfriend, A.

IMG_1449Even that first day, I turned to nature, taking a long walk in the woods and getting lost despite the fact that the Zurichberg forest is not really all that big. That was okay. Lost was fine. I stumbled across this amazing owl fountain and wished I was as wise as an owl.

I can’t describe everything that made J special, or everything that made me sad, or everything about what I was thinking. I will say that I went to a comically Teutonic counselor; we did not connect. Walking in the woods helped me far more.

But two things I will say. First, thinking of J made me re-evaluate what I want from life. Both because in his own life he did what made him happy – surfing, climbing, outdoor trips, music, good food, good friends – while still being an excellent and hardworking scientist, and because, as always when faced with death, you think ‘what should I be doing in order to make this time count’? I realized that I spend a lot of time on things I don’t love. I do a lot of things that are less fun than being with the people I love. We all do. It’s inevitable. But I think I can prioritize and shift the balance. Don’t we owe that to ourselves? I haven’t been getting outside. I’ve been crossing things off the to-do list, the to-do list that gets longer and longer and never shorter. That’s no way to live. Do as J would do, and go to the beach and go surfing.

J had just finished his PhD. As I am just starting mine, it was a very odd notion. Is this ultimately futile?

But I’ll move on to number two. Talking to Günther, my co-worker from Davos where we met and worked with J, we seemed to have both come to a realization: our time in Davos was spectacular and unmatchable. Now we are both starting PhD’s. Neither of us is unhappy; we are thrilled to have amazing opportunities. I love my lab. I can’t imagine a better situation.

But that doesn’t take away the fact that, in all likelihood, never again will I have so much fun doing work as I did in Davos. It was as if we were going out every day, and the work just happened to get done – not that we were forced to go do it. It was a unique combination of things: the beautiful mountain surroundings, the fact that we were very good and very efficient at getting things done, our team’s camaraderie, energy, and love for adventure. The pizza and brownies we’d bring with us into the field. J’s fun and generous presence, when he was around. The fact that we were responsible for our work and could feel pride in it, but did not bear the ultimate responsibility in the end.

After finishing our PhD’s, we will be overqualified to have that feeling again. We’ll be the bosses. That will change things.

So many ideas, feelings, fragments swirl around in my head. I thought of J and how it happened a continent away from his family and best friends. I thought of myself in Europe. What am I doing? Why am I placing myself so far away from those I love the most?

At almost exactly this time, I saw a posting for two PhD positions, paid for four years, at the University of Vermont. Maybe I should just quit, I thought. I can go back to New England and start over. I can be surrounded by my community.

That lasted about ten minutes.

Of course, it gets better. I’ll stay. I love it here. Eventually, I will find my way back to North America, and I’m confident in that, and it’s fine. I had a really hard time when I first moved over here, as evidenced by a certain gloomy and desperate blog post. But I’m over that hump. I was moving cheerily onwards towards the Christmas break, and now things are really going: I start my first course this week, I’m working on my official PhD proposal, and I’m starting my first experiment.

Doing work! In the lab! It’s very basic but very exciting. The time of reading papers endlessly and feeling bewildered is over. (Instead, it’s doing many other things and knowing that still, actually, there are an infinite number of papers that you should be reading at this very moment, or rather, that you should have already read and be able to cite by heart, including not only the methods and results but the author names, year, and journal….)

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I will be okay. There are others who are hurting more than me. I will be there for them.

In the meantime, go hug someone you love. Or better yet, go to the mountains. With someone you love. Hug them there.

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